WSU President M. Roy Wilson told The Detroit News that the dismissal hearings are aimed at accountability for individuals and excellence for the university. The professors facing the hearings are “grossly underperforming” and “not doing anything,” he said, making it difficult to move the university toward its mission as a premier urban research institution.To the extent that universities implement post-tenure review, with or without the advice and consent of the faculty, or workload policies under which people might be able to take on more courses in exchange for scaling back their research, the concept of academic tenure might be under revision from inside. And there are variants of post-tenure review under which an underachieving colleague might be reassigned to additional teaching, or required to submit a research plan (and perhaps asked to have that plan reviewed by a panel within the university, which says more about the breakdown of collegiality and collaboration within the professor's department, or perhaps about the false economy of one area specialist working alone in a department) or placed on some kind of probation that might culminate in a dismissal for cause or a suggestion that he file retirement papers. The shame is that many academicians know little of life outside the cloister, and having a railroad or a garden or some other such project in mind is as alien a concept as making a trip to Mars.
“(They) are blatant examples of taking advantage of a tenure system, which is a privilege,” said Wilson, who took office in 2013. “I value tenure. It’s important for universities. I have always protected tenure. ... But when it’s abused so blatantly, it makes it very difficult for other people who are doing what they are supposed to do to come to work and do their jobs, because they see another person getting the same amount of money or more and not coming into work and not being accountable at all. You just can’t build a first-class university that way.”
Charles Parrish, president of the American Association of University Professors-American Federation of Teachers at Wayne State, said he strongly discouraged Wilson from trying to remove tenure from professors, and suggested the move is a way to cut costs resulting from failure of past administrators. “No other university that I know of in American history has launched an attack on tenure in this way, announcing that they were going to go after (nearly) 40 faculty members,” Parrish said. “There have been attacks on tenure all over the country ... but not from inside the university.”
What is going on at Wayne State is different.
The de-tenure proceedings involve each professor going before a seven-member panel, including a nonvoting judge or arbitrator, for a closed hearing. The panel makes a recommendation to Wilson. If the president recommends dismissal, then Wayne State’s Board of Governors or a committee appointed by the board will have another hearing. The board makes the final decision.Ordinarily, dismissal for cause requires the patient compilation of charges, sometimes over years, and the faculty member facing dismissal has some understanding of the nature of the charges, or a history of conversations with the department head about unfavorable student evaluations or absence from the journals.
While the proceedings are scheduled for the first professor this week, hearings are set for two others in May and June. The hearings for the two other professors are not yet scheduled.
Parrish expects that all the faculty members will vigorously defend themselves, especially since they have not been provided with written evaluations or discussions about their performance over time. “I am not sure the university is going to get any of them,” he said.
Parrish confirmed that the five professors are four men and one woman who have served the university for an average of 30 years. Their assignments include posts in the departments of biochemistry and molecular biology, molecular medicine and genetics, obstetrics and gynecology, and pharmacology.It's possible that colleges of medicine depend on indirect cost return in a way that colleges of liberal arts do not, and that a substantial fraction of the faculty are effectively on soft money. Thus, as grant money dries up, perhaps the faculty members who do not generate indirect cost returns get turfed out first. The danger, though, is that the grant-getting professors, if they perceive themselves as being turned into profit centers for the administration, might begin to see the wisdom of doing their research in a more, shall we say it, entrepreneurial way. If you think there's a lot of corruption involving, for instance, Big Pharma and academic research (it's a regular feature at University Diaries), just wait until the entrepreneurs are free from the civilizing effect of arts and letters.
But a letter obtained by The News offers a glimpse into how the process unfolded for one of the professors. In it, Detroit attorney Gordon Gregory expressed outrage after meeting last May with the professor and Sobel.
During the meeting, Sobel highlighted many contributions the professor made in his career, but then noted the lack of grants and publications in recent years, according to the letter. The professor protested that he had been moved to a lab with inadequate equipment to perform significant research, and the administration was aware of the situation.
Still, medical school officials continued to insist the professor was unproductive, according to the letter.
“To my dismay, I witnessed the summary destruction of a distinguished academic career spanning 26 years at WSU,” Gregory wrote in an email to Louis Lessem, WSU’s vice president and general counsel. “It took only ten minutes for (an associate medical school dean) to announce that (the professor) could resign or face dismissal. He is not prepared to retire or resign. ... He was never given expectations. No one knows where productivity begins and ends.”
That is, if arts and letters matter.
It’s unclear how long the hearings will take but Sandy Hughes O’Brien, chair of the WSU board, said she is not looking forward to them.That's the spin. And having a proper College of Medicine as an aspirational goal, why, who can object to that? The reality, unfortunately, is that Wayne State was practicing access-assessment-remediation-retention long before that became a thing. My colleagues in economics battled against it as well as they could. I bailed.
“Its horribly unfortunate,” said O’Brien. “Our goal is that we are back to the prestige we used to be in our heyday, when we were graduating large numbers of students, and were in the (nation’s) top of graduating diverse students. It is in our blood, in our mission, it’s what we should be should be doing.”